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No pressure on Tonga says Hopoate

Words: Tony Webeck, Chief Queensland Correspondent‌‌, ‌‌‌NRL.com

051017_Hoppalead

They will announce the game's best forward in the strongest Mate Ma'a Tonga squad ever assembled on Thursday morning but incumbent captain Will Hopoate believes his side will still enter the Rugby League World Cup free of expectation.

Tonga coach Kristian Woolf will announce his World Cup squad at 9.30am on Thursday where the name 'Jason Taumalolo' will feature prominently in a squad consisting entirely of players who are currently playing in the NRL or England's Super League.

It is the first time that Woolf has been able to name a squad made up entirely of top tier players but as they share Pool B with New Zealand, Samoa and Scotland their path to a quarter-final berth remains a difficult one.

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With wins in four of their past six Test matches the Tongan team will be one to be respected but Hopoate sees the underdog tag as an asset that can serve the No.11-ranked nation well.

"The great thing about us is that there's really no pressure," Hopoate told NRL.com.

"Obviously it's expected for the tier one teams to be dominant and we've just got no pressure on us, we're just trying to play the best we can.

"I'm excited to be part of the World Cup campaign this year. It will be my first World Cup so I'm looking forward to it.

"It's always special when you get together with your own people. We have the same traditions and same cultural beliefs and you kind of joke the same way."

A decision on who will captain the team won't be made until prior to their first pool game against Scotland in Cairns on October 29 but it is a responsibility Hopoate holds dear to his heart having led his nation out in their 26-24 win over Fiji in the Pacific Test.

"That was a great opportunity. I never would have thought I would have been captain," said Hopoate, who made his debut for Tonga in that Test.

"As a kid I loved watching Mate Ma'a Tonga play and it inspired me and uplifted me so to then be the captain of the side was a great blessing."

The addition of Taumalolo for the first time since the 2013 World Cup gives Tonga momentum off the field as well as on but Woolf is realistic enough to know that it by no means guarantees their progression to the knockout stage.

New Zealand (No.2), Scotland (4) and Samoa (5) are all ranked significantly higher than Tonga but the experience of squad members in elite competitions will hold the side in good stead according to Woolf.

"It probably is [the strongest Tonga squad assembled] but we're also going into the strongest competition that we've been involved in," Woolf told NRL.com.

"You look at the side that Australia's named and it's extremely strong, New Zealand will certainly come up with a very, very strong side [on Thursday].

"The exciting thing is that for teams like Samoa and us and Italy and Scotland and all those teams is that we're going to have some really recognisable names and that's going to help them be a lot more competitive and I think that really adds to the competition as a whole.

"For the first time we're going to be in a position where every player we choose is actually playing NRL this year or English Super League.

"Usually we're picking guys from both the Intrust Super Cup and Intrust Super Premiership but this year we're going to be a little more experienced than that."

This article first appeared on NRL.com